SAN DIEGO — American flags are lit ablaze. Firecrackers pop off sporadically. Bottles and rocks become trajectories aimed at the U.S. under-23 soccer team in Mexico City, a city in which no U.S. team has won, trying to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics.
Yari Allnutt, who grew up in the shadows of the Golden Triangle's shining office towers, soaks up the atmosphere on this Wednesday in late March.
"It definitely wasn't La Jolla," Allnutt said. "And it didn't look too hopeful."
Then the game, the first round of Olympic qualifying, begins, and suddenly the altitude and smog join the crowd's anti-U.S. conspiracy.
"You felt it burn the first sprint you took," Allnutt remembered of the haze that passes for air in the world's most polluted metropolis. "You could feel it in your lungs."
The Mexican players are used to it, though, and they go up, 1-0.
The jeering stops and rebuilds into a roar for the home team. Now to every pass the Mexican team strings together the throng of 50,000 adds punctuation: "Ole, ole."
"They kept chanting that, 'Ole, ole, ole' " Allnutt said, an indication that the American defenders weren't sticking with their opponents with the same grip as the ozone was sticking to their throats.
"But we're a clutch team," Allnutt continued. "We play with heart. The U.S., when it comes to the Olympics, for some reason we seem to show more heart and more guts. We play our hardest because it's for the Olympics."
The young U.S. team, made up of college students given a semester's reprieve by the NCAA, comes back.
The score is 1-1.
The score is 2-1, and suddenly history isn't so daunting.
Neither is the crowd.
"When we went up," Allnutt recalled, a blank look on his face remolding into a proud grin, "they (the fans) just turned completely around. I made this sneaky, back-heel pass, and it started. 'Ole, ole.' They started saying that every time we connected on a pass. It was pretty exciting."
The game ends, 2-1, and the U.S. team takes off for home toting a little more respect than that with which it arrived.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Allnutt, who was adopted by his family shortly before it moved from Baltimore to Mexico. He spent his early years in the small town of Ajijic, Jalisco, 25 miles south of Guadalajara.
Allnutt, 22, becomes uncomfortable when asked about how the family ended up in Mexico.
"Well, my father, when he was alive, took a sabbatical, from whatever he did, in Mexico," Allnutt said, suddenly unsure of his words. "He passed away there, and we decided to live there for a while. We had a house there."
Although Allnutt watched his older brother, Micah Allnutt, now 29, play soccer in Ajijic, and although he himself kicked the ball around with other neighborhood kids, he insists he didn't begin playing until he moved to California.
When Allnutt reached the age of seven, his mother, Donna Allnutt, decided to move the family back to the United States where her children could receive a better education.
They landed in Linda Vista before moving to University City.
Although the family began in the United States, it felt as though it was entering a foreign land. Yari and his younger brothers and sister spoke no English.
"I came here and I didn't know any English except for what my mother spoke around the house," Allnutt said. "But we always used to tell her, ' No hablas asi. Don't talk like that. We don't understand that.' "
After coming from behind for a 4-3 victory over Honduras at St. Louis in the second game of regional qualifying, the U.S. team prepared for Game 3 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on April 19.
"It's definitely Third World," Allnutt said. "You fly in, and all you see is a lot of banana trees and dirt roads, and then a little rinky-dink airport. And then you go into the city and it's not much different. It's definitely not the States.
"They don't even let us out of the hotel in a place like Honduras. . . . But you're there to play, and I'm there to play, and that's about it."
Not quite. In South America, soccer is worshiped as some sort of deity, especially when a game carries international significance, especially when that international significance can mean superiority over the United States.
Allnutt and the rest of the U.S. team found that out as a crowd outside their hotel awoke them early on game day.
"I woke up that morning to these drums and cymbals outside the hotel," Allnutt said. "There's at least 200 people out there playing their drums and singing their music and chanting, 'Down the United States, 5-1, 5-1.'
"I'm looking down about five stories. The soccer players are just sitting there, and my butterflies are rattling--everybody's are because it's pretty intense. I mean, we just wake up for breakfast and we hear all this."
The game was scheduled for 1 p.m., the hottest time of day when the humid tropical air is more an enemy than the 102-degree temperature.